From Arrests to Trials and Jails, Bay Area’s Criminal Justice System Reels in Age of Coronavirus

San Francisco's Hall of Justice, photographed in 2019. Sheriff Paul Miyamoto released a plan on March 10 to keep COVID-19 out of the city’s jails. Details include triage measures to assess arrestees for signs of infection and contingency plans should a positive case be detected. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

Jury trials across the Bay Area have been postponed. Local jails are closed to visitors. Inmate advocates are calling for the large-scale release of people who don’t pose a threat to public safety. From new arrests to early releases, the threat of COVID-19 is affecting every stage of the criminal justice system.

Local law enforcement said they are focusing primarily on high-priority calls for service, those that involve serious crimes in progress. Arrests are still being made, but at least some departments said they are leaning more heavily on their authority to cite and release people for lower-level offenses — rather than booking them — to limit the jail population.

“For example, someone driving on a suspended license or in possession of a controlled substance” might just get a citation right now, said Sgt. Juan Valencia of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.

Santa Clara County suspended its policy of criminally charging people after their third recreational drug offense, which Assistant District Attorney David Angel estimated could keep an additional 500 people out of its jails.

So far, no local jails have reported a known case of COVID-19. But Sgt. Michael Low of the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office confirmed Thursday that an inmate at their Elmwood Correctional Facility died after an unknown illness.

"The medical examiner will be conducting additional testing to see if COVID-19 was a factor,” Low wrote in an email.

By their nature, jails house a large number of people in a confined space, making preventive measures like social distancing difficult to implement. Inmate rights advocates, jail officials and public health officials are expressing concern about the possibility of the coronavirus spreading rapidly through incarcerated populations.

Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern said Wednesday that the potential for an outbreak inside Santa Rita Jail is “a major concern.”

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Contra Costa County Public Defender Robin Lipetzky said while it’s fortunate no jail cases of COVID-19 have been reported yet, “that is not surprising given that the population is not being tested. Given what we know medically about the spread of the coronavirus, we believe that many people are being needlessly exposed to the virus in custody.”

Like public defenders in Alameda County and San Francisco, her office is calling for the release of all inmates who don’t pose a public safety risk.

“We are scrambling to get as many [clients] out as possible, but this is difficult with only one courtroom open for very limited purposes,” Lipetzky said.

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While the early release process has been slow to get off the ground in Contra Costa County, according to Lipetzky, other counties appear to be taking the initiative.

Angel said that his team in the Santa Clara County DA’s office has been working with the public defender and sheriff to bring the county’s current jail population down at least 10% to 20% from its prepandemic number of 3,300.

In just over 10 days, the county reduced its population to “just over 3,000,” Angel said. And on Friday, the county determined about 150 additional inmates who could be released, he said.

Angel said Santa Clara County is targeting several distinct groups for early and/or supervised release: low-level offenders, people incarcerated largely because they can’t afford bail, people with pending sentences, “medically fragile” individuals as determined by the jail’s medical team and inmates with 90 days or fewer left on their sentences.

This does not mean every member of the above groups has been, or will be, released, Angel said. For instance, if an inmate is deemed a public safety risk, or if they are severely mentally ill and unable to take care of themselves, they would not be released.

The Alameda County Sheriff's Office said in a Thursday tweet that 247 people were approved for early release and an additional 67 were released on their own recognizance.

Activists called for larger steps to empty Santa Rita Jail, including ending new bookings at the jail and releasing more people, especially anyone who may be vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.

“It’s really only a matter of time until the disease reaches Santa Rita Jail,” Dr. Juliana Morris of the Do No Harm Coalition said during a streamed press conference Thursday. “It’s a public health nightmare waiting to happen.”

Ahern said all inmates at Santa Rita Jail are being screened for symptoms, as well as deputies and any civilian staff in the jail. So far, no one in custody has presented coronavirus symptoms, he said. Two housing units have been emptied to be used to isolate any inmates who begin to show symptoms.

“We’re doing more than what’s necessary to take care of safety and health,” Ahern said, adding that the 4,500-person jail currently has more than 1,000 empty beds.

Notices posted at the San Francisco Sheriff's Intake and Release Center on Thursday say that jails are closed for visiting and that court processes have been largely suspended. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju, who is pushing for similar releases, said his jailed clients are scared just like the rest of us.

"But unlike a lot of us who are not incarcerated, they can't take those steps to create that social distance," Raju said. "They can't wash their hands with soap whenever they want to. And they can't take the appropriate steps to boost their immune system."

San Francisco Sheriff Paul Miyamoto released a plan on March 10 to keep COVID-19 out of the city’s jails. Details include triage measures to assess arrestees for signs of infection and contingency plans should a positive case be detected.

Arrestees in San Mateo County will undergo “an intensive medical screening” for COVID-19 before being booked into jail, according to a March 14 Facebook post from the sheriff.

Three inmates in Santa Clara County jails have already been put into isolation for 14 days “due to a possible exposure by a visitor,” according to a March 17 press release. “None of those inmates show any signs or symptoms associated to COVID-19, but are being closely monitored by medical professionals.”

Low said those inmates were not tested, and will be placed back into their respective housing units once the isolation period ends. He also said staff is conducting frequent temperature checks on all inmates and “implementing social distancing” in the jails.

Valencia said in Sonoma County, no inmates or staff have undergone testing for COVID-19, but that arrestees are being asked additional questions about their health and travel history.

Contra Costa County Sheriff’s spokesman Jimmy Lee declined to answer questions about medical screening for inmates or staff. However, Lee noted that deputies have been given protective equipment “to include gloves, googles, gowns, a face shield and masks.”

While family visits have been suspended for all counties under shelter-in-place orders, jails are still allowing legal visits. And a couple of facilities have made modest efforts to provide easier access to phone calls. Santa Clara County is offering inmates two free five-minute phone calls twice a week, while in San Francisco jails, phone calls will be free for a week.

Jury trials and the majority of hearings have been delayed in Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, San Francisco, Marin, San Mateo and Sonoma counties. Traffic cases have been postponed for at least a month. Civil trials and motions have been postponed for up to three months.

“One of the proceedings that are not being delayed are bail reduction/own recognizance hearings for in custody defendants,” San Mateo District Attorney Stephen Wagstaffe wrote in an email. “Those hearings are continuing without any delay,” to avoid keeping people in jail longer than necessary.

Along with arraignments, hearings for domestic violence restraining orders are still taking place in some jurisdictions, according to information posted by the courts.

Public defenders from Contra Costa, Santa Clara, San Francisco and Alameda counties all said their offices have been extremely busy dealing with the emergency.

District attorney’s offices are also still open to “to review new criminal cases in order to make charging decisions, to staff arraignments, to create discovery packets and to respond to critical matters,” said Teresa Drenick, spokeswoman for the Alameda County district attorney.

However, most courts are closed to the public and minimally staffed. Alameda and San Francisco Superior Courts are allowing certain types of emergency filings to be made via a drop box.

“Of note as well, the [Alameda County] Family Justice Center remains open for critical needs,” Drenick said.

Emergency orders issued by California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye over the past week give courts the authority to implement closures and delays at least until early April, but they could be extended well beyond that.

“It is too early to determine the long-term impacts,” Contra Costa Public Defender Lipetzky said, “other than to say that we will be dealing with the fallout from this for a very long time."

Raquel Maria Dillon of KQED News contributed to this report.